Fresh hopes of devolution deal to improve North East transport network - if Sunderland, South Tyneside and Durham can be convinced to join up with Newcastle and Northumberland
There is fresh hope of a new North East devolution deal being struck that could give local leaders major powers and funding to overhaul the region’s transport network.
The government has made clear that powers over rail and bus services will only be handed over if councils either side of the Tyne can mend a split that saw three of them break away in 2018.
Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland councils left the old North East Combined Authority and Jamie Driscoll was then elected last year as mayor of the new North of Tyne Combined Authority, for which the government agreed a £600million devolution package.
But ministers have refused to give the Labour mayor power to improve train, Metro, and bus services unless South Tyneside, Sunderland, Durham and Gateshead can be convinced to sign up to the mayoral model too.
NECA chair and South Tyneside Council leader Iain Malcolm kept the door open for a new devolution agreement.
He said: “South Tyneside Council is always prepared to discuss receiving more powers and access to funding through devolution from central government.
“As NECA chair I can confirm no formal discussions have been held with the North of Tyne on this, but it is important to emphasise that there are a number of devolution structures we can discuss with government at the appropriate time.”
Durham County Council leader Simon Henig added: “We will give careful consideration to any option that could benefit the people of County Durham and regardless of what formal arrangements are in place, we will always strive to work closely with our neighbours to get the best deal for the region.”
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, whose authority was the first to shun a previous North East-wide devolution deal in 2016, has now indicated that he could be open to the idea – if the government’s offer is good enough.
Coun Gannon has been a staunch critic of the metro mayor system, but suggested that he could put aside those concerns if following that path was the only way to launch a radical transformation of the North East’s transport network.
The region’s leaders have long wanted to create a more joined-up system that could allow passengers to use a single ticket across all public transport, while there have been renewed calls lately for councils to have greater control over bus routes and ticket prices.
Coun Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “I absolutely love devolution, I want as many powers and resources as possible here.
“I don’t like the metro mayor model, but the government seems to be determined to push that plan.
“If they come forward with substantial powers and resources, Gateshead would consider its position.”
In March’s Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the North East could share in a £4.2 billion transport funding pot, but only if it came together to form a single combined mayoral authority.
Coun Gannon added that there was no chance of the four councils south of the river “ceding power” to a mayor, but Mr Driscoll said that was “not on the table, and I wouldn’t support it”.
Mr Driscoll, who told councillors last week that talks had been held over expanding the devolution deal, said: “With a mayoral combined authority, the powers are devolved down from central government, not up from local councils.
“I know Martin’s as disappointed as I am that we didn’t get a Labour government in December. But we’re both pragmatic. Central government has made it crystal clear that any further devolution depends on having an elected Mayor.
“In the Budget in March, the government said in black and white that if we unite as a region, we’d be able to share around £600 million in transport funding.
“We’d also get the power to integrate our transport system, and make buses, the Metro and rail all work as a single, efficient system.
“Devolution is working for the North of Tyne. We get an extra £20 million a year to invest, and £23 million a year adult education budget. We’ve just got an extra £24 million for housing. We’ve created jobs and funded training opportunities for people.
“I’m speaking to government and expect the North of Tyne to get further devolution of powers and resources.
“I’d be delighted if the councils south of the Tyne wanted to unite with us as equal partners.
“But that won’t happen unless there’s an offer that works for them. I certainly wouldn’t accept any deal unless it works for the people who elected me.”
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